Use of drone to transport organs between cities deemed a success

A Cessna drone was used by the Texas Organ Sharing Alliance to transport organs from Lubbock to Oklahoma City, then to San Antonio and back to Lubbock during a test on Nov. 15. Credit: Courtesy / Texas Organ Sharing Alliance

A recent experiment that utilized a drone to transport organs within Texas and Oklahoma cut travel time in more than half, furthering the goal of a consortium that the technology will be used in the near future to save more lives.

The “drone” — an optionally piloted aircraft — is a light, single-engine piston Cessna that is currently in the experiment phase. The purpose of the unmanned vehicle is to move up to 400 lbs of freight, including donated organs.

In the first leg of the Nov. 15 test, the drone, which was transporting a kidney, liver and pancreas, along with blood and tissue, was launched from Texas Tech University’s Reese Technology Center in Lubbock and traveled 350 miles to Oklahoma City.

In the next leg of the test, the drone traveled 471 miles to the San Antonio International Airport. It then returned to the Reese Technology Center.

The flight was operated from Dallas using robotic technology, marking the first time donated organs were transported that far by a drone. Per Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, a pilot was on board as a precaution for safety and security, though the plane was flown entirely by technology.

“I haven’t been privy to anything that went wrong. We were tracking the flight. We did notice slight delays depending on wind changes,” said Clara Guerrero, director of communications for the Texas Organ Sharing Alliance. “The only variants I saw is that we were maybe 10 minutes off schedule.”

The goal of the experiment was to determine whether drone technology would provide a quicker and more efficient way to transport donated organs, which must be delivered to a recipient as quickly as possible, to patients who need them.

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Hearts and lungs must be transplanted within eight hours, livers within 12 hours and kidneys within 36 hours, said Guerrero.

“You’re saving hours. What that also means is the organ is more viable,” Guerrero said. “That person, they don’t have to wait so long for the organ to arrive. We’re saving lives faster and sooner.”

For the organs in the test, what would have been a more than 20-hour route by car or truck took 12 hours and 15 minutes, according to Guerrero.

When the organs arrived in Oklahoma City, San Antonio and Lubbock, they were examined and were found viable for transplantation. They were then donated for clinical research rather than transplanted.

The Texas Organ Sharing Alliance joined two similar organizations — LifeShare of Oklahoma City and LifeGift of Houston — in partnering with the Matador Consortium, which sponsored the experiment.

The consortium’s goal is to accelerate research and development for commercial uncrewed aerial system (UAS) operations for uses such as procured organ transportation, search and rescue services, crop management, rural health care, renewable energy infrastructure, herd management and more.

The Nov. 15 test was essential to prove that 200-per-miledrones “hold the promise of transforming the ability to rapidly deliver critical supplies” across rural and urban environments, according to a press release from the Reese Technology Center.

“Every nine minutes, someone is dying because they don’t have a life-saving organ,” Guerrero said. “In Texas, there are 10,000 people on the waiting list for an organ transplant.”

The use of drone technology in the delivery of organs could happen in the “near future,” said Guerrero. The consortium is seeking approval from the FAA, which restricts flight paths between cities.

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The Matador UAS Consortium hopes to show how drone technology can be used in order to eliminate some of those restrictions.

When approved by the FAA, the aerial organ transportation would be used to transport organs across rural, South Texas areas, including Edinburg, McAllen and Brownsville.

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